We Will All Be Mystics Or We Will Be Nothing

Last night was the last session of our Adult Faith Formation gatherings at St. Thomas Apostle church. Our theme this year was Mysticism.

While I was walking the Camino in the fall, Bill Nolan, pastoral associate at STA and the person with whom I have co-facilitated these sessions, walked through Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now with the participants. Upon my return, we together organized our sessions around a number of mystics: Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and Thomas Merton. (We had planned to include Meister Echkart, but poor Meister got dropped out when we needed additional time on the others.) We read selections from their writings, considered some of their other works (poetry in the case of Teresa and John, and music and drawings in the case of Hildegard) and in some cases watched some film excerpts.

Throughout the year, we encouraged individual reflection and focus on the participants own mystical experiences, even if that was not a label they had previously used to describe their experience. It was humbling at various times, including last night, to hear people share some of their deep experiences of God.

Bill ended our session with the quote with which he began the first session last fall. It was from Karl Rahner, who observed, “In the days to come, we will all be mystics or we will be nothing.” (Rahner’s definition of a mystic is “one who has experienced God for real.”)

You might spend some time reflecting on what Rahner meant by saying that and, more importantly, on your own “real” experiences of God.

Women Mystics

Today I will be speaking at the Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture at the University of St. Thomas, speaking on Women Mystics of the Catholic Church. I will speak about three mystics – Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena – and about what we can learn from them.

My focus on women mystics is not intended as a slight against the male mystics of the Church, which include some who are deep favorites of mine (men like Thomas Merton, Ignatius of Loyola and John of the Cross). But some of the greatest mystics in the history of the Catholic Church have been women and I think that for contemporary women, the experience of so many Christian female mystics is something that is a source of strength and encouragement. Women like the Teresa, Julian and Catherine each showed extraordinary strength and courage, especially if one takes into account the social limitations of their times, challenging conventional ideas about gender. They heard God and they did not keep quiet about it. They recorded their experiences in journals, treatise, letters, music and visionary poetry. It was not their aim to form an opposition to the Church and society of their day. But, as Carol Lee Flinders observed in her Introduction to Enduring Lives, “when God comes to visit, you don’t keep quiet about it out of fear you might disquiet the bishop, and you don’t reword what you actually heard or censor what you saw.”

Ursula King had this to say about the importance of the mystics to our lives today:

To rediscover the story of the Christian mystics is a great adventure. Their manifold experiences and examples can be truly empowering for our own lives. Mystics traveled along the margins of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the world of the mundane and the world of the spirit, where all things are made whole. Today, at the beginning of a new millennium, we too are finding ourselves at an important threshold of a new, perhaps different and more difficult world, where we can gain much from spiritual nourishment. The Christian mystics speak to us across the centuries, and if we listen, we can learn something about the deepest experiences of their lives, so that we too may glimpse the glory of God and feel the healing touch of the Spirit.

If you are in the St.Paul area, come on over to the auditorium in Owens Science Hall at UST for what promises to be a wonderful day.

More Mystics (And Some Talk About Evangelization)

Before leaving for the Camino, I gave talks at the first three sessions of a Fall Reflection Series at the law school on Praying with the Mystics. In my absence, my colleague Jennifer Wright presented the final two sessions of that series, the first on Margery Kempe and the second on the author of the Cloud of the Unknowing. I thought those of you who followed the early part of that series might be interested in hearing those talks and seeing the prayer material connected to them.

You can access a recording of both of Jennifer’s talks here or stream them from the icons below. You can find the prayer material here and here.

Author of the Cloud of the Unknowing Talk:

Margery Kempe Talk:

One of the other programs I arranged to have presented at the law school in my absence was a Mid-Day Dialogue on Evangelization in the Catholic and Protestant Traditions, featuring my colleagues Fr. Dan Griffith and Joel Nichols. As with all Creo en Dios! podcasts you can access them from the libsyn site (link above). You can also strem it from the icon below:

Talking about Thomas (Merton, that is)

Yesterday was the second gathering of the Fall Reflection Series on Praying the Mystics we are offering at UST Law School this fall.

Last week, our “mystic of the week” was Teresa of Avila, and during the first part of our session, participants shared in small groups the fruit of their prayer with Teresa this past week. We then had some general discussion about the week, which included addressing the challenges (for busy law students, faculty and staff and lawyers) of finding regular prayer time and of focus during prayer. We also talked about what Teresa referred to as detachment; what in Ignatian spirituality we would refer to as “active indifference.”

Following the general discussion, we turned to our mystic for this week. I offered a reflection on Thomas Merton (like Teresa, a favorite of mine), talking a little about his life, the stages of his spiritual journey, and the foundational mystical experiences that shaped that journey. In the course of my reflection I read two Merton’s description of two of those experiences. (The participants will pray with a third this week.)

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 22:00. You can find the handout I distributed (which I refer to briefly near the end of the podcast – we were running short of time) here.

What We See When We Look at God

An important part of the conversion process for many people is a change in their image of God. For many that means the transformation from an image of a harsh and judgmental God to an image of a loving God.

This transforamtion is a necessary part of spiritual growth; after all, who wants to deepen their relationship with a tyrant.

There are many things the contribute to the distorted image of God that so many of us picked up along the way, including inartful catechesis, which convinced us that God was always watching us and waiting to catch us in some wrongdoing. Ready to pounce on us as soon as we messed up.

There is only one thing that can overcome this distorted image of a tyrant God: prayer. As Richard Rohr observes:

The people who know God well—the mystics, the hermits, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator. God is never found to be an abusive father or a tyrannical mother, but a lover who is more than we dared hope for.

If this is not the God you see, take a longer look. Spend some time hanging out with God. Let yourself experience the lover who wants nothing more than to be with you.

What it Means to Follow Jesus

I just finished reading Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See. Rohr’s aim is to help us get beyond dualistic thinking by encouraging us to live “in the naked now, the ‘sacrement of the present moment,’ that will teach us how to actually experience our experiences, whether good, bad, or ungly, and how to let them transform us.” Nonduality is not a principle unique to Christian mystical thought; as Rohr points out in his book, the Hindu, Mahayana Buddhist and Chinese Taoist religions all proceed from a worldview of nonduality. But it takes on a disctinctive form in Christianity.

In a chapter titled How to Celebrate Paradox, Rohr invites us to take two statements as axiomatic:

(1) All statements and beliefs about Jesus are also statements about the journey of the soul (birth, chosenness, ordinary life, initiation, career, misunderstanding and oppoisition, failure, death in several forms, resurrection, and return to God).

(2) All statements about “the Christ” are statements about the “Body” of Christ, too. We are not the historical Jesus, but we are the Body of Christ.

I suspect these are statements that will trouble some people because the way we talk about Jesus as the Son of God tends to separate Him from us. We mouth our understanding that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, but most people tend to downplay the fully human part, which can be a very convenient way to let ourselves off the hook to engage in the tough work of transformation.

I think there is much truth to Rohr’s concern that we worship Jesus rather than follow him. He writes:

One of the most subtle ways to avoid imitating someone is to put them on a pedastal, above and apart from us. When you accept that Jesus was not merely divine but human as well, you can begin to see how you are not separate from Jesus.

It is a lot easier to worship than to imitate. Jesus’ instruction, however, was not “worship me,” but “follow me.” To become one with Him, as he and the Father are one.

Dare to Believe

One of the things many of us struggle to fully embrace is the reality that we are loved unconditionally by God. It is hard to us to accept that we do not need to do anything to earn God’s love, that God truly loves as as we are, despite all of our imperfections.

Often, our reaction to our imperfections is one of guilt or shame. We feel unworthy of being loved because of something we did or did not do. In a piece adapted from Following the Mystics Throught the Narrow Gate, Richard Rohr talks about the danger of reacting to our faults with guilt and shame.

When people are shamed and made to feel guilty their soul closes up and doesn’t expose itself and doesn’t trust after that. It just starts pretending. It starts playing the game of religion where you go through the motions, but you don’t really feel it or believe it anymore. You hardly trust it, but you keep paying your “life insurance” or fire insurance dues—just in case the whole thing is true.

Our churches are filled with these people not because they are bad people but because they have never been told what the mystics were told and dared to believe and dared to receive. God loves you and receives you as you really are, and not as you think you should be. Until that is actively and deeply experienced, you do not move from mere religion to actual spirituality.

It is one thing to regret our wrongdoing and to strive to be the best we can be. At the same time, we need to dare to believe, dare to receive, what the mystics understood so well: we are already loved by God completely, fully, unconditionally. Nothing we do can make God love us any more or any less.

Desire for God

Part of my Mother’s Day gift from my daughter and husband this year was a book titled, For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics, a title that gives more than a hint of the book’s contents. The book contains poets of both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions, spanning the years from the Desert Fathers to contemporary voices. The poems are accompanied by short commentaries by Roger Housden, who put together the collection.

One of the first poems I opened to is a beautiful poem of longing written by St. Augustine, which I had not before been familiar with. It is titled, I Came to Love You Too Late. In it, Augustine comes to a realization that is importnat to all of us – that the God we seek has been inside of us all along. He writes

I came to love you too late, Oh Beauty,
so ancient and so new. Yes,
I came to love you too late. What did I know?
You were inside me, and I was
out of my body and mind, looking
for you.
I drove like an ugly madman against
the beautiful things and beings
you made.
You were in inside me, but I was not inside you….
You called to me and cried to me; you broke the bowl
of my deafness; you uncovered your beams, and threw them
at me; you rejected my blindness; you blew a fragrant wind
on me, and
I sucked in my breath and wanted you; I tasted you
and now I want you as I want food and water; you
touched me, and I have been burning ever since to
have your peace.

St. John of the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John of the Cross, one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians. He was also a great friend and confidant of St. Teresa of Avila, and, despite the fact his own leanings were toward a more hermitic life, he became involved in her plans to reform the Carmelites, thus pulling him into a life of public service and controversy. (One time, he was imprisoned for nine months for refusing to renounce the Carmelite reforms he and Teresa were pushing.)

John of the Cross is also considered by many to be Spain’s greatest lyrical poet. One commentator suggested that “as a poet, he ranks with the greatest.”

One of John’s shorter poems is titled, Romances – First Romance: On the Gospel “In principio erat Verbum,” Regarding the Most Blessed Trinity. As I re-read it, it struck me as a wonderful poem to share during this Advent season.

In the beginning the Word
was; he lived in God
and possessed in him
his infinite happiness.
That same Word was God,
who is the Beginning;
he was in the beginning
and had no beginning.
He was himself the Beginning
and therefore had no beginning.
The Word is called Son;
he was born of the Beginning
who had always conceived him,
giving of his substance always,
yet always possessing it.
And thus the glory of the Son
was the Father’s glory,
and the Father possessed
all his glory in the Son.
As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that unites them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all three.
One love in them all
makes of them one Lover,
and the Lover is the Beloved
in whom each one lives.
For the being that the three possess
each of them possesses,
and each of them loves
him who bears this being.
Each one is this being,
which alone unites them,
binding them deeply,
one beyond words.
Thus it is a boundless Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.

Fall Prayer Series – Praying With the Mystics

This week was the third session at St. Hubert’s in Chanhassen of the Fall Prayer Series I’m offering this Fall at both the University of St. Thomas and at St. Hubert’s. (The UST one has already concluded.) The series is designed to introduce participants to different prayer forms and styles (although even those with some familiarity and experience with the particular styles and forms of prayer can benefit from hearing something they have heard before in a different way).

One of the topics at St. Hubert’s that was not part of the UST series was the topic of last night’s session – Praying with the Mystics. Although the terms “mystic” and “mysticism” scare some people, there is much in the experience of the mystics that we can learn from. In the talk I gave at the session, I spoke of one of Thomas Merton’s foundational religious experiences and also a little about one of the great mystical writers of the 14th century, Julian of Norwich. After the talk, the participants spent some time in silent reflection, using Julian’s famous image of a hazelnut as an image for how all in creation is held in God’s loving hand.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here. (The podcast runs for 27:14, and ends at the point at which participants engaged in their silent reflection.) At the end of the session, I distributed a handout with suggestions for their prayer during this week, which you can access here.